Sunday, June 29, 2014

Vietnamese Summer Rolls with Homemade Nước chấm

Summer is here! Are you finding it too hot, too muggy for an outdoor barbecue? Too lazy and time-strained to cook up a feast for your summer parties? If you are scratching your head for novel home-entertaining ideas, or simply looking for a fresh and light meal at home -you might just have found your answer here.

Ever since visiting my Vietnamese-born friend's home one summer in Brisbane for a family-style brunch, I've been hooked to a fascinating new world of cooking - a distinct food culture that is by no means foreign, yet little explored at home till then. 

Most in Hong Kong are accustomed to, even weary of, suspiciously MSG-laden phở and substandard Vietnamese fare in deplorably localized Vietnamese eateries across the city. Menus vary little one from another. And the bounty of fresh herbs and condiments so essential to Vietnamese cuisine are especially hard to come by in this expensive city.

There in Brisbane, in the brightly sun-lit kitchen, I had the privilege to experience Vietnamese home-cooking at its freshest, and most authentic. Preparing Gỏi cuốn (fresh Vietnamese summer rolls) hands-on with my friend and his mother was like taking an exclusive backstage tour to a remarkable cuisine, whose astonishing simplicity juxtaposes with the complexity of its flavors. The key lies in the freshness of ingredients and balancing of the five fundamental taste elements. When my friend returned from the garden with bunches of freshly harvested Vietnamese mint (and another pungent herb I still could not name) and retrieved their family stock of hoisin dipping, I knew I was in for a real palate-opening experience.

The filling of Vietnamese summer rolls traditionally consist of prawn, pork, vermicelli, and a rainbow of vegetables. Fillings vary according to taste and preference, which makes this dish highly adaptable and thus an excellent choice for DIY parties. It involves minimum cooking; simply prepare the dip, prep all the fillings, set a basin of water in the center, and let the fun and bonding begin as friends and family get their hands on creating their own summer rolls. Vegetarians go nuts!

Featured below is my adaptation to what I have enjoyed at my friend's, based on what's available. I took ample liberty in assembling my filling. Substitute or leave out as you wish.

To prepare...
Vietnamese rice paper (Bánh tráng)
 1. Wash and prepare 1 bunch of fresh mint and fresh cilantro. These two indispensable aromatics work magic together and feature dominantly in Vietnamese cuisine. For extra fireworks, add Thai basil. Here I use Italian basil that I grow on my rooftop garden.

2. Wash and prepare bean sprouts and 1 head of butter lettuce, ribs removed.

3. Thinly slice carrot and cucumber into matchsticks. I like to run mine in a handheld mandolin slicer to make life a tad easier.  


4. Follow package instructions and cook thin rice vermicelli, drain and set aside to cool. I came across a rare brown rice variety at my grocery and snatched a pack in substitution of its less wholesome, white counterpart.

5. Prepare wood ear fungus, either fresh or dried. This unusual fungus adds more crunch and color than taste to the rolls, and is an excellent source of dietary fiber and iron. I always keep a pack of dried, shredded wood ear fungus in my pantry, as they are easily reconstituted with water.
6. Not your typical choice of protein for a Gỏi cuốn filling, the Chả lụa - or Vietnamese pork roll - is a great alternative to poached lean pork or prawn. I have a roll that I bought from Ho Chi Minh City - with unmistakable notes of nước mắm and cracked black pepper - which is far superior in flavor to the disappointingly bland and rubbery ones often served in Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong. Leave out the meats for a vegetarian version. 

7. Make the dip to tie together all the vibrant flavors. At my friend's home we served the summer rolls with a traditional hoisin dipping with ground peanuts, but here I choose to serve the dish with nước chấm, which is essentially a dip combining white sugar dissolved in warm water, minced garlic and Thai bird-eye chili, and adjusted to taste with fish sauce and fresh squeezed lime. 

To make your own summer roll...
Dip a sheet of rice paper in water and wet evenly. Lay on flat surface and begin building your filling across the sheet starting with the lettuce. Roll the stretchy rice paper over the filling and tuck everything underneath; fold the sides inwards and finish rolling like you would a burrito. Practice makes perfect.
Dip the finished roll in nước chấm and take a big bite and set off the fireworks in your mouth. A light yet very fulfilling dish that puts summer in its name.

[Any thoughts or comments? Please share with me!]